Why Was Everyone Dying?

tigerOne of my favorite authors over the last few years is the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa. Ogawa writes little pieces, short stories or short novels. Her prose (in translation, of course) is simple and direct. Her narratives involve extremely pedestrian situations. But in most cases, Ogawa twists the narrative and opens up some very dark and disturbing places.

In some ways Ogawa reminds me of the early Banana Yoshimoto but her themes are far more upsetting. Take Hotel Iris, for instance. The story is of a young girl who has a love affair—a common narrative—but the sex rapidly turns into a much more intense form than you would have expected involving bondage and other forms of sado-masochism.

My most recent adventure in Yoko Ogawa is the collection of stories titled Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales. Ogawa has been compared to Haruki Murakami, Edgar Allen Poe, and even Jorge Luis Borges. Here are eleven seemingly simple stories, each with a disturbing twist. Are the stories related?  I would say yes, both in theme and narrative: the uncle in one story is the old man in another story; the tiger in the garden becomes the warm coat in another; and what about all those kiwis?

It strikes me that Ogawa’s Revenge is very much like Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. How does Tokyo Gothic sound?

Ogawa’s works to date are:

  • The Diving Pool: Three Novellas
  • The Housekeeper and the Professor
  • The Hotel Iris
  • Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales

RevengeYou can read all of Ogawa in a day or so, but it’s too exquisite to rush through. Here is one excerpt from the beginning of one of those dark tales, “Welcome To the Museum of Torture”:

Lots of people died today. In a city to the north, a tour bus tumbled off a cliff, killing twenty-seven and badly injuring six more. A family of three, weighed down with debt, committed suicide by turning on the gas—and when the house exploded, six more died next door. An eighty-six-year-old man was killed by a hit-and-run driver; a child drowned in an irrigation ditch; a fishing boat capsized; some mountain climbers were swept away by an avalanche. The was a flood in China a plane crash in Nepal, and in Niger a religious cult committed mass suicide.

But it wasn’t just humans. I saw a dead hamster in the garbage can at a fast-food place this morning. I was throwing out a coffee cup when I happened to notice it. The can was so full that the lid was half open—a perfectly ordinary sight yet something caught my attention.

A hamster lay between a crumpled hamburger wrapper and a crushed paper cup. Its fur was speckled brown, and its tiny arms and legs were a beautiful shade of pale pink. The poor thing almost still looked alive. I even imagined I saw its little paws twitching. Its black eyes seemed to be looking at me.

I opened the lid the rest of the way, releasing the smell of ketchup and pickles and coffee all mixed together. I was right, the hamster was moving: hundreds of maggots were worming into its soft belly.

Why was everyone dying? They had all been so alive just yesterday.

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